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How to Prevent Choking Under Pressure | Psychology & Martial Arts (Ann Arbor, MI)

Consider the following words:


banana      vomit


Certain images come to mind. You can imagine the sweet, yellow fruit that is the banana. Perhaps even your memory was able to access the taste of the fruit. When you read the two words together, your mind began to make an uncomfortable association between the fruit and a sense of nausea.


Daniel Kahneman uses this word pairing in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow to illustrate how the brain makes quick associations. If a camera had been focused on your eyes, you would have seen your pupils dilate at the word “vomit”. You might have even had a physical reaction, such as wrinkling your nose or physically moving away from your computer.


So, what do words and psychological mumbo-jumbo have to do with martial arts?


Words impact actions. Words can shape the outcome.


The Calvin and Hobbes Example

This effect, which psychologists call priming, happens all the time, too! We’ll use Calvin and Hobbes to illustrate this point:

Calvin and Hobbes are primed to use the bathroom! (Click on the picture for better resolution.)


The monsters are priming Calvin with images of water without actually telling him to go to the bathroom.


… Which is where the martial artists come in.


The Taekwondo Performance Experiment

Scientists wanted to figure out why highly skilled athletes were choking under pressure. In a study that examined experienced athletes in three different sports - taekwondo, soccer, and badminton – scientists wanted to test if priming helped athletes get past difficulties in performing under pressure (cf. Beckmann, et al, 2013).


At the beginning of the taekwondo experiment, researchers had twenty practitioners warm-up. All participants had at least a seventh rank. They practiced in front of a camera that didn’t hinder their performance.


Then, they were told that they would be videotaped and evaluated by a coach. Half were given a ball to squeeze in their right hand. The other martial artists were instructed to squeeze a ball in their left hand.


The martial artists who squeezed the ball in their right hand choked.


The researchers guessed that squeezing the ball in the right hand might have stimulated the left-hemispheric processes, such as verbal-analytic thinking.


In laymen’s terms, the researchers found that the martial artists were over-thinking their performance, which caused them to choke.


Counting in Japanese = Cue Words!

Research on the topic before this study focused on verbal cues. When athletes were told to pay attention to their behavior, they performed poorly. They had increased self-focus, which kept them from letting their muscles behaving normally.


Other research suggests that good priming techniques include “use of the imagination, deep breathing, or cue words… to facilitate concentration and optimize arousal level” (cf. Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010).


When Priming Goes Wrong

There are cases when priming can be harmful.


In one study, a group of women were told that females are bad at math. This verbal priming impaired their test scores compared to their female counterparts who had not been told the erroneous statement (cf. Jamieson & Harkins, 2011).


After hearing the stereotype, why was the test group performing poorly? Researchers found a disturbing answer: they were giving up and withdrawing from the math problems.


Priming isn't just external. What do you tell yourself before you step on the mat? Before you compete or perform? Are you mentally setting yourself up for success or failure?



Implications in Your Performance

If you have a competition or test coming up soon, just know this:

1. You already engage in priming practices! From counting to meditation, your sensei has been setting you up for success.


2. You know the moves. Your teacher wouldn't ask you to test if he or she didn't think you were ready. Overthinking it does more harm than good.


3. Tell yourself that you can do it. The best place to find motivation is from within.


If you are interested in finding a martial arts, Ann Arbor-based Japanese Martial Arts Center has courses in Judo, Jujutsu, Iaido, and Karate. For more information, visit http://japanesemartialartscenter.com/ or email info@japanesemartialartscenter.com.

Serving Southeast Michigan:

JMAC students come to practice from throughout Southeast Michigan, from such areas as:

  • Ann Arbor
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  • University of Michigan
  • Eastern Michigan University
  • Michigan State University
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  • Oakland Community College
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Ann Arbor - Martial Arts Mecca

For the prospective martial arts student, Ann Arbor is a mecca in the Midwest. More than any other location in Michigan, Ann Arbor has a wide variety of martial arts styles taught by many well respected sensei (teachers). You can find training opportunities at community centers, college and university gyms, health clubs, fitness centers and dojos (training halls). Among the styles available are: aikido, iaido, judo, jiu-jitsu (also called jujutsu), karate, kendo, kung fu, MMA (mixed martial arts, sometimes called BJJ) tae kwon do, tai chi, and many westernized martial arts systems. At JMAC, we offer world class instruction in judo, jiu-jitsu, iaido (Japanese swordsmanship), and karate for kids.


Aikido is a martial arts descended from jiu-jitsu. It includes joint locks, throws, takedowns, and pins. The philosophy of aikido is a peaceful one - to use the attacker’s energy to neutralize his or her attack without causing injury. Aikido is taught in several forms, such as Aikikai, Ki Society, and Yoshinkan. Aikido was founded by Ueshiba Morihei, who studied with Takeda Sokaku, the most famous practitioner of Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu. Its principles can be found in almost every Japanese martial art, especially jiu-jitsu and judo. Read more about the physical and philosophical principles of Nihon Jujutsu.

Iaido in Ann Arbor

Iaido is Japanese sword drawing. It was created by the Samurai to defend against surprise attacks by an armed opponent. Most iaido involves the practice of pre-arranged forms, which are excellent tools for training the body, improving concentration, and entering into a meditative state. Finding a talented instructor in iaido with legitimate credentials is rare … in the Midwest it’s practically unheard of. For those with a desire to compete in swordsmanship for sport, kendo is the activity of choice. Those who are willing to endure an occasional whack on the head may pursue bokken kumite (sparring with wooden swords) with our director’s authorization once they reach black belt at JMAC. Read more about iaido at JMAC.

Ann Arbor Judo

Judo was founded by Professor Jigoro Kano. It is both a martial art and an Olympic sport. It includes throws, pins, joint locks, and chokes. It is among the most vigorous of martial arts and is very popular with children as well as adults. The Japanese Martial Arts Center offers classes in judo for children as young as 6 years old, and for adults (starting at age 16). One fact not widely known is that sport judo is a narrow cross section of the complete art of judo. Proponents of the entire art, such as Satoh Tadayuki Sensei of Waseda University in Tokyo, recognize that the founder’s vision encompassed not only “judo” throws, but joint locks, takedowns, redirection, strikes, vital points, dynamic ukemi, kata, and weapons. Judo training at JMAC includes many of these opportunities. Read more about Judo at JMAC.

Ann Arbor Jiu-Jitsu (Jujitsu / Jujutsu)

Jujutsu - which is also written "jujitsu" and "jiu jitsu" - is the ancestor martial art of aikido and judo. Although it includes many of the techniques found in aikido, as well as many more combative techniques that did not find their way into aikido, the philosophy of jujutsu is more practical. Techniques are applied more directly, with a greater emphasis on pain compliance. Those who study jiu-jitsu over the long term improve their fitness, concentration, and ability to defend themselves. The Japanese Martial Arts Center offers serious jiu-jitsu classes for adults starting at age 16. You can learn more about the differences between Japanese jujutsu and Brazilian jiujitsu.

Karate – Kids Karate in Ann Arbor

Karate involves mainly strikes, kicks, and blocks. It was originally developed in the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa), and was later exported to Japan before finding its way around the world. Karate is an excellent martial art for those who prefer striking, and helps develop physical strength, stamina, and confidence. There are many forms of karate taught around the world today, including Shotokan, Shorin-ryu, Chito-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Kyokushinkai. If you’re looking for a way to help your child learn enthusiasm, fitness, discipline, and manners while having a lot of fun, consider the kids karate program at JMAC. We have an incredible core of talented instructors who have made it their business to inspire kids to be their best. Read more about our karate program for kids.


Kendo is a sport descended from Japanese swordsmanship. In Kendo, participants wear padded armor and attempt to score points by striking vital points with bamboo swords called "shinai." Practice is fast paced, involves much spirited shouting, and is a lot of fun. The Japanese Martial Arts Center does not offer kendo, but can refer you to a reputable kendo instructor in the area.

Kung Fu

Kung Fu is a Chinese martial art that actually includes many sub-styles. Like karate, kung fu involves strikes, kicks, and blocks, but also includes many esoteric motions that can be applied to take down or otherwise defeat an opponent. Kung fu often appeals to imaginative people because of the many references to animal forms, but it is also a very challenging and practical martial art.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

MMA (mixed martial arts) to a modern competition-based collection of techniques. Most MMA schools teach striking as well as grappling. Although not a traditional martial art - and thus lacking many of the character development and spiritual aspects of ancient Asian arts - MMA is nevertheless a fantastic form of exercise and a lot of fun. Because many MMA fighters have employed judo and jujutsu successfully, the Japanese Martial Arts Center offers private instruction to top-level competitors as well as occasional workshops for our members.

Tae Kwon Do

Tae Kwon Do is the Korean counterpart to Japanese karate. As a striking art, it includes punches, kicks, and blocks, but typically Tae Kwon Do emphasizes more kicking than does karate. Competition (usually for points rather than full contact) is very common among Tae Kwon Do practitioners. It is an excellent form of exercise, but seems more susceptible to commercialization than more traditional arts such as aikido and iaido.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is another form of Chinese martial art. It is usually taught with slow, controlled movements and deep stances. There are many health benefits associated with Tai Chi, including strong bones, cardiovascular health, and calmness.

Getting Started in Martial Arts in Ann Arbor

If you are considering taking up martial arts, you will find many superb opportunities in and around Ann Arbor, including outlying cities such as Brighton, Canton, Howell, Northville, and Plymouth. Students from the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, Cleary College, and even Michigan State University have supplemented their education with martial arts and found that the physical activity helps them concentrate on their studies. We think the Japanese Martial Arts Center offers the best programs in Michigan, but we’re interested in people who are willing to work hard and do what it takes to become truly accomplished. We encourage you to look around to find the martial arts club or school that best meets your needs.